When worlds collide: on writing and responsibility

Hi, everybody!

Happy Friday!

Unless you’re in another hemisphere. In which case, happy Saturday! 😀

Quick announcements — The Rainbow Book Fair in New York City is tomorrow (April 9) and I’ll be there at the Ylva table with R.G. Emanuelle and whoever else wants to come over and hang out with us. There are books, readings, festivities, and happy fun times, so if you’re in NYC and you feel like coming into Manhattan and checking it out, HERE’S THE LINK for info. Make sure you scroll all the way down that page for even more deets.

Also, the GCLS has posted its conference schedule. Check it.

Next week we’ll do our Hot off the Press and Coming Attractions thingies. Unless we’re all abducted by aliens or holed up in a bunker somewhere fighting off zombies. IT COULD HAPPEN, PEOPLE.

So anyway, this week, I want to talk about the permeable boundaries between writing and reality.

Writing and I have a mostly love-love relationship, though there are times we’re not speaking. Which is fine. It’s important, I think, to get away from the inside of my head and engage more immediately with the world around me.

Lately, I’ve been engaging with totally fictional worlds via a couple of TV shows. One more than the other. I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic (and dystopic) fiction, so I watch the shows The 100 and The Walking Dead. At any rate, I’m totally fascinated with the storylines in The 100 (if you watch it, then you know whereof I speak), and the generally tight writing that unspools beautifully each episode, within the context of those episodes but also within the larger context of the series arc. For those of us who write series, that’s one of the things we’re faced with — ensuring the plot arcs follow logical, tight trajectories, interacting with each other in ways that you, the viewer/reader, get caught up in.

We don’t want you to see the seams. Good writing, fellow writer Joan Opyr once said, means you don’t notice all the moving parts because they’re working together so well that you’re caught up in the end result. That’s what storylines like those that exist in The 100 do. And those storylines are carried by excellent characters (kudos to all the actors in that series) who make you freaking BELIEVE that 100 years after a nuclear apocalypse, people survived on Earth, developed different cultures, and a third set of humans who isolated themselves offworld came back to Earth and OMG all hell breaks loose as these cultures come into conflict and contact.

I’ll just say here that my new dream job is writing for The 100.

At any rate, as some of you may know who follow The 100, a beloved character died in the show last month. I’m not going to get into specifics about it here, but the character was a lesbian and was killed in crappy circumstances, thus fulfilling the dreaded “bury the gays” trope and there was an issue of fanbaiting and queerbaiting that cropped up and lots of people were very upset about this character’s exit (I totally sympathize because I was one of them). And then a second popular character was killed off (and there may be some icky stuff going on with regard to that behind the scenes) soon after.

Lincoln in The 100.
Lincoln in The 100.

The thing is, it’s a TV SHOW. And it depicts a really godawful, violent, brutal world. It’s true that nobody is safe in such circumstances. So I have mixed feelings. I get it. The world sucks. People die. And writers don’t have a responsibility to write what fans demand they write.

But.

And yet.

This is a brave new world, in that social media and the interwebz have made it possible for fans to engage like never before with the writers, producers, and directors of TV shows. As Myles McNutt notes at A.V. Club in a piece titled, “When fan engagement goes wrong: The 100, Shameless, and the unsustainable dynamics of social TV,”

Beyond simply promoting the shows, social media engagement has also helped make fan bases that have been historically marginalized visible to those behind the scenes, creating direct lines of communication that stand alongside expanded representations on screen.

But this expanded engagement comes alongside a new form of responsibility, which is not yet fully defined but has come into sharp relief with these two examples in 2016. What happens to these new relationships when behind-the-scenes realities force the end of both of these relationships? What happens when the writers’ pragmatic — if inelegant at best, and seemingly blind to tropes that have dogged TV history at worst — decisions in response to those realities ostracize the same fans that were actively courted? And how are those who made those decisions supposed to interact with fans — now a strong expectation — who feel equal parts angry and betrayed? Put simply, how responsible should showrunners, writers, and networks be in circumstances where fans air their grievances in the same space where they have been encouraged to engage in the past?Put simply, how responsible should showrunners, writers, and networks be in circumstances where fans air their grievances in the same space where they have been encouraged to engage in the past?

Indeed.

I’m a writer. And yes, I do engage with readers, and some have taken issue with some of my storylines. So I get the difficult position The 100’s writers and producers were in, given that the actress who portrays beloved Lexa wasn’t able to commit to a longer appearance on the show. As a result, they had to figure out what to do, so they gave her a significant story arc, and used her death as a big reveal behind a major part of Grounder culture and mythology. But they still “buried the gay” about 64 seconds after she finally consummated the mutual attraction she had with the show’s other primary female character. And they killed her in a way that was really super-crappy for the character though in terms of story arc beyond that, it has made some sense.

The reaction from fans to what happened on The 100 has resulted in ongoing media coverage, lots of money raised for an organization that helps LGBTQ youth, and started a conversation about not only LGBTQ representation in media, but also representation in general, and the responsibilities, if any, a show and a show’s writers have to fan bases, especially in this permeable world in which you can Tweet at any one of them and probably get a response.

As a writer, I get that tough decisions have to be made behind the scenes in a show like this. Some actors aren’t going to be available forever. Hell, the show’s story lines may fizzle. The studio may decide to shut it down. If you’re writing in that milieu, you have to think about those things, and you have to tailor the story lines to all of those — you have to move the story forward while balancing real-world issues. But you also have to think about fan engagement, because a TV show relies on fan engagement, which helps drive all of those decisions on several levels.

Because, srsly. Who DOESN'T want to look at Lexa some more? amiright?
Because, srsly. Who DOESN’T want to look at Lexa some more? amiright?

But as a reader/viewer, I see other layers at play. I’m cognizant of representation, because as a reader/viewer, we bring our own personal histories and contexts to our experiences of stories. None of us have any kind of experience with an actual apocalypse, but yet we get caught up in the idea of it, while still retaining baggage from the world in which we actually live and work. And we foist that baggage onto what we view and read. The 100 is one of the more diverse TV shows I’ve been viewing, and it’s a show in which the social context for same-sex relationships is completely different than it is for me, viewing it. Hooking up with someone of the same sex in the world of The 100 is no big deal (perhaps an apocalypse makes people realize how dumb it is to get hung up on that…?).

And because of the show’s context, yes. Even gay people die. Nobody gets a pass in this world.

But.

The world’s not real, and it’s filtered through where we are NOW. Which is fraught. Which is in search of representation. Which is tired of watching LGBTQ people die, and disallowing them happiness in a TV show.

I have no easy answers, but as a writer and a reader/viewer, I see the difficulty in balancing story and fan base. Which doesn’t mean I’m still not a little pissed about how The 100 handled itself in the wake of fan outrage over being queerbaited only to lose a beloved character.

That’s what I mean when I talk about permeable boundaries between what we view/read and reality. It’s a beautiful thing to get so caught up in a story that you feel you KNOW the characters, and you love and live with them, and you grieve them when they’re gone. Don’t we all watch those shows over and over again? Don’t we all have favorite books and stories we read over and over again because of that? Because we want to retain that feeling of being so caught up that we feel we’re IN that story? That’s true escapism, and it’s a wonderful thing.

But I’m back to the question Myles posed above. What responsibility does a TV show’s writers have to its fan base? What responsibilities does any writer have to her readers?

I think a lot about that, given my own life and how I identify. I know that this world in which we dwell is fraught, and that fiction can be an incredibly powerful medium to break barriers and to build communities. I want to tell engaging stories that help do that. But I also want to be true to the worlds I write, which may involve unpopular decisions for readers (possibly viewers, if I get my dream job…HA!).

At any rate, no easy answers. But hopefully, food for thought.

Happy Friday, all! May you find (or write) stories that hold you close.

Women and Words dream bunker. source
Women and Words dream bunker. source
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4 thoughts on “When worlds collide: on writing and responsibility

  1. Did you know the commander princess in 100 is also a character in the show Fear of the Walking Dead… I was very excited at the discovery. Though TWD has much more action…

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  2. One of my favourite Australian shows just started it’s second season with the murder of the lead actresses lesbian lover! I was seriously not impressed. However it now appears they are working the murder into the series and I suspect there is another love interest blossoming, so maybe it will actually strengthen the lesbian sub plot which will be a great change.

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